Category Archives: Teaching tales

And so this is Christmas…

I first noticed Hanna when the first grade teacher made her stand in the back of the classroom for the entire 40 minute English lesson. It’s frustrating when they do that, as it is the only English class they get all week, and their only chance to speak a few words with me. Making students stand in the back, usually with their backs to the class, is a popular punishment.
The next class, there she was again. I noticed she was wearing the same ugly brown pants and brown shirt, and her hair was lank and uncombed; unusual, as most Korean children seem very well cared for, and the girls love their Hello Kitty gear.
But Hanna had none of those accoutrements of a girly childhood. After she had been standing for nearly half the class I asked the teacher how long she was supposed to stand there, and the teacher replied, “Only one minute.” I pointed out it had already been 20, and the teacher relented and told her to sit down. Her “crime” was probably fidgeting, or talking, in other words, acting like the 7-year-old child that she is.
That day the teacher let Hanna sit with us at lunch, and that’s when everything changed for me. This tiny child matter-of-factly pulled up her sleeve to reveal a series of five large bruises running from her wrist to her elbow. It was then I noticed that what I thought were smudges on her face were bruises. She chattered at the teacher for a few minutes, while the teacher just listened and nodded. I asked the teacher what she had said, and she related that Hanna lived with her grandmother, who was “very sick,” and that her grandmother sometimes got very angry and beat Hanna with a stick – but that afterwards she was always sorry. I was stunned.

Now I certainly know that children are abused, beaten, neglected and worse every day, all over the world, but somehow I felt this one was personal. Perhaps it was the fact that she was so stoic about it that broke my heart, but I felt a strong desire to protect this child. And so, I tried to find out what was being done for her, and what could be done. What I found was not heartening. After school I went to talk with the teacher, whose English skills fade in and out like a bad radio, and she told me that Hanna’s parents had divorced when Hanna was two, left her with her mother’s mother, and hadn’t seen her since. So number one, she is abandoned by her parents. And number two, granny’s “illness” is a mental disorder. So this little girl is living with her crazy granny, who is so poor the village built her a house last year, ala Habitat for Humanity.

The teacher said the school and authorities were aware of the situation and were “monitoring” it, but that Hanna did not want to leave her grandmother, and that “it wasn’t as bad as last year.” And so I learned the ugly truth about the Korean child welfare system. Under Confucian principles, the family is paramount. Keeping Hanna with her grandmother was the number one choice, as long as she was clinging to life. Basically the only way they can be parted is if Granny dies, or is committed to a mental hospital.

Even if Hanna were taken away, the alternatives are not great. There is no foster family structure in Korea. In the rare instance when children are taken away from the family, they are put in an institution, like an orphanage. In some cases it is an orphanage. So which is the better of the bad choices – leaving her to live with the only family she has, and loves, although it means being neglected and beaten, or living with strangers in a cold institution?

So that’s where we left it for several weeks. I decided to make friends with her and watch for signs of abuse, and make sure they were reported. Every week she sat by me in the lunchroom, and I gave her and her friends cookies at the end of their meal. Every time, she would hold the cookie carefully in one hand while she finished eating, then carry it back to class with her. She waved it in her hand while she skipped down the hall. I imagined she was enjoying the envy of her classmates – for once.

Then three weeks ago when I made my classroom appearance, I nearly cried. She had a large bruise across her little nose, with black creeping under one eye. A large scratch on her neck showed above the flowered kerchief she often wore. Now I knew why she wore it. She had been beaten again. At lunch she pulled up her sleeve again to show another march of bruises inflicted on her thin arms. I imagined the stick hitting her arms as she tried to ward off the blows and protect her head. The teacher said Hanna had been late getting home from a birthday party on Saturday, and Granny, in her concern, beat her.

Corporal punishment has only recently been banned in schools in Korea, and parents are free to beat their children – and wives – as they feel is necessary for discipline, but beating a 7-year-old for coming home late from a birthday party? That’s just abuse.

This time I flipped out and started emailing and calling anyone that I thought could help. In the end a social worker came to the school and talked with Hanna and the teacher, and took pictures of the abuse. She also told the school that the foreign teacher was very concerned and was thinking of calling the police. Apparently this got their attention and that’s why the social worker was called in. I was informed of this later, but the person just repeated what I had heard before: they were monitoring the situation. I pointed out that they were not going to be monitoring when Granny hits her too hard and kills her. I’m sorry, I know this is not easy reading, so thank you for reading this far.

To her credit, the teacher sat down with me last week to tell me everything they had been doing for Hanna, including giving her baths at school and providing free lunches. The teacher has even bought her clothes, most of which Granny refused to let her keep. She asked me what I thought should be done, and I told her Hanna needed to be taken out of that house. I suggested that she could live in the group home but still visit her grandmother on weekends, but that didn’t even seem to sink in.

Then I asked if I could take Hanna out on the weekends, to give Granny a break and let Hanna have some fun. It would also give me a chance to take her clothes shopping! The teacher thought that was a great idea, and said she would ask granny. I was so excited I even asked a bright 5th grader girl at my other school is she could join us to act as translator. She was thrilled to be asked.

Unfortunately, the next Monday I was told that Granny not only said no to the outing idea, she said “never.” Or however you say it in Korean, but “never” is what the teacher related. Hanna was to go to school and come straight home. Period. My heart sank. Plan B, I asked if I could buy Hanna some warm clothes and things that she could keep at school. Remember, Korean classrooms are COLD. It can be below freezing outside and the teachers will open the windows for “fresh air.” The kids cope by wearing full outdoor clothing – hats, scarves and bulky coats – in class. Except for Hanna, who wore only long-sleeved t-shirts and plastic shoes, often with no socks.

So, last weekend, with Christmas approaching, I went shopping for Hanna. I ran into one friend in a local department store, and when I told her about my mission she opened her wallet and insisted on contributing to the “Help Hanna” fund. In the end I got her a stocking cap and muffler set, a pair of pink, fluffy Hello Kitty slippers for school, a quilted pink sweater with a rabbit fur collar and big white polka dots, a new pencil case, crayons and a coloring book. Before I gave her the bag of goodies, I ceremoniously presented her with a card that said she  had been chosen as the “Christmas Child of 2008” by the “Waygook English Teachers Association (WETA) of Jeju.” There is of course no such group, but if there was she would definitely have been chosen. My plan was that the designation would make it not seem like “charity” in case Granny found out.

When I gave her the gifts last Monday after school it was bitterly cold and snowing. We put the hat and scarf on her, then the sweater. Her smile just kept getting bigger and bigger as she saw more things in the bag. The teacher said she really liked the coloring book. Although she can hardly speak English, she gave out a very clear “thank you.” My eyes were not dry. The teacher barely got the sweater zipped up before she was running out the door to show her friends. You have probably looked at the photo by now, so you can see how adorable she is. Even without being a special case, she is just an exceptionally beautiful child.

An hour later the teacher emailed me the photo and said she had called Granny to tell her about Hanna being “selected” by the foreign teachers’ association, and that Granny had been “thankful.” While I was hoping Hanna could avoid any potential conflict by leaving the gifts at school — the last thing I wanted was for her to be punished for my actions – I doubt if she was willing to leave her warm and colorful new clothes at school after all.

That was last Monday, and now we are on winter break for six weeks. I hope and pray that lovely little Hanna will be safe during that time. That’s all I want for Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all my family and friends back home. I wish I were there with you.


Greetings, fellow Imperialist running dogs


I know that to those of you (and that is pretty much all of you) sitting snugly in your Western, English-speaking homes, my travails with the English program here probably seem amusing. Oh that Marcie, such a kidder. How bad can it be, really, you say. Ha ha.

So, just to give you an idea of the material I have to work with, here are some actual examples from the textbooks:

Every chapter has a “role play” component. Shakespeare it ain’t. From the 4th grade unit, Who is she? comes the reenactment of the Korean legend of Princess Shim Cheong, who marries the King and throws a banquet for the blind in order to find her long-lost father. Here we go:
Shim Cheong stands up with a surprised face when she sees her father appear.
King: Who is he?
Shim Cheong: He is my father. (Running to him) Father!
Shim Cheong’s father: Who is she? (he’s blind, remember)
Subject: She is Shim Cheong.
Shim Cheong’s father: Shim Cheong?
Shim Cheong: (Hugging him) Father!
Shim Cheong’s father: (Surprisingly, his eyes open slowly) Oh, Shim Cheong!
Shim Cheong: King. This is my father.
King: Nice to meet you.
Shim Cheong’s father: (His eyes are very wide with surprise) Nice to meet you too.
The End.
Gripping stuff, eh? And so realistic too.

The actual performances went more like: Whoishe?Heismyfather.Father.Whoisshe?SheisShimCheong.ShimCheong?Father!gigglegigglegigglegiggle.

OhShimCheong.gigglegigglegiggle.Thisismyfather.Nicetomeetyou.Nicetomeetyoutoo.gigglegigglegiggle, etc.

Then there is this dialog, from the 6th grade lesson, “How was your vacation?” They must have repeated this two dozen times, yet when they actually had to write out a real sentence about their vacation, using the vocabulary words they spent four weeks on, they failed miserably. “I was go swimming. It was fun!”
Here’s just an excerpt from the book:
Jinho: Hi, Tan. Good to see you again.
Tan: Hi, Jinho. How was your vacation?
Jinho: It was great. I visited my grand-parents (sic) in Busan.
Tan: Did you go camping, too?
Jinho: Yes, it was fun. How was your vacation?
Must be read slooowly and stiffly, so they can unnderrrstaaand what. you. are. saying.

The books also include “culture lessons,” expounding on the differences between Korean and American/British culture, obviously from a Korean viewpoint of “the other.” Some of it is astounding and profoundly disturbing.
From “Individualism in America”: “Fundamentally, every human being has the same right and they believe that they have a freedom, human rights by nature. (sic)
“They want to protect themselves by not being bothered by any other people.” (!!! So, we’re all Unibombers now?)
“Thus, they have been trained in a way to decide what they want and what they have to do to get it by themselves in their young period. Accordingly, they use I, me, my and mine, but we don’t hear ‘We Americans,’ or ‘We British’ in their language.”
Um, I seem to recall “WE the people” mentioned somewhere, now where was that?…

I actually brought the above passage to the attention of one of my better English-speaking co-teachers and when I told her it was not true she was stunned.
“But, we are taught this from a young age about Americans!” she said. Man, no wonder the world hates us. Funny, they hate “us” collectively for being individuals.

But, Tuesday I led a dead simple exercise where the kids had to draw a picture of a person, from friend to family to sports figure, and then tell the class who it was. Three little girls drew me – they were so cute! This one was my favorite because I have smiley eyes – and I’m slim. Ha ha!

"This is my teacher."

"This is my teacher."

The rampant abuse and misuse of English continues to be a constant source of amusement, and you don’t have to look far to find the hilarity. Thursday this angelic 4th grade girl was wearing a long pink T-shirt with large glittery letters covering the entire front that read: “PEE ALL THAT YOU CAN PEE.” I’m not kidding. P, B, what’s the difference? None, in Korean, unfortunately. Just as there is no difference between r and l, k and g, p and f.
Sometimes the errors are due to pronunciation, but most often it’s just something lost in translation. Like this helpful sign in the ice cream section:

Sadly, my melon ice cream bars still melted before I got them home.

Sadly, my melon ice cream bars still melted before I got them home.

One day I was walking into a store with a perfectly average set of double doors, and was stopped by a sign by the push bar that said: “Your Hands! Watch Out!” I managed to enter and exit with both hands intact, so I guess it did the trick. And yet, there are no signs on buses saying, “Wild driver! Life in you hands take!” But that’s another story…

Dancing as fast as I can


Another week down, and I finally feel like I’ve turned a corner – I moved into my new apartment and school is going smoother. I am, with fingers crossed, thinking maybe I can do this. I still don’t believe I am making an impact on the children in terms of learning English, but at least I am a constant source of amusement for them. It’s weird to walk down the hall, or even sit at my desk and be constantly greeted with giggles and a musical “hello-o!” And the kids are even worse.

The weekend was again chockful of activities, starting with a parade on Thursday evening. The first weekend of October was the Tamna Festival, marking something like the 1000th anniversary of Korea. I don’t have any pictures of the parade because I didn’t know about it until Thursday afternoon, when my Aussie friend emailed that it was happening.

The parade was composed of various elements of Korean traditions, from Shamans and haenyo, women shellfish divers, to a rainbow of fantastically costumed musicians and dancers (can’t you just picture it?). The best part was the complete absence of commercialism – not a single waving politician or thinly veiled advertisement.

Saturday was the day my schools have been working toward for a month – the all consuming Sports Day. English classes at both my schools were randomly cancelled all week because the students needed to practice their games. If they put a fraction of that effort and enthusiasm into “playing English,” as they call it, they would be orating at the U.N. by 6th grade.

On Sports Day all the parents are invited to come and watch the all-day races, contests, dancing and music exhibitions. It’s basically an open house, but they don’t go into the school. Koreans are crazy about fitness, certainly something Americans students could stand to emulate. Teachers in Korea are expected to put in lots of free hours, all in the name of the common good. Sports Day was no exception, and when I rolled in around 11 a.m. (exhibiting my American work ethic), the Korean teachers had been at it for hours. Everyone was dressed in their best sporty attire, from track suits to golf clothes. Korean women believe in avoiding the sun, not for fear of skin cancer, but for the antebellum notion of keeping their skin as white as possible. Here, tanned skin is still associated with the working peasants, laboring in the fields. To protect their faces they were these enormous visors, sometimes with extra flaps on the sides to protect against rays from all possible angles. Tres attractive. They also wear white gloves, which make them look like traffic cops. Or Minnie Mouse.
As I walked up the long sidewalk to the school the students greeted me with their usual enthusiasm, pointing me out to their parents, who shyly avoided me. Families had picnic blankets spread out along the walk, covered with the usual assortment of Korean food: 16 kinds of kimchi, 10 kinds of dried fish and rice in various shapes and colors.

At this school, the vice principal, my buddy, is always dragging me into the staff room to sample the latest delicious cuisine. This week it was yet another form of gelatinous rice, called doh, colored deeply green, which was apparently a plant derivative.

Anyway, after being greeted by my VP, and ignored as usual by the principal, who speaks NO English, I mingled and took photos. Things were going well until after a large group of mothers took to the field to do a hip hop routine that I swear was based on “The Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. When they were finished one of the teachers grabbed my arm and said “Now the teachers dance!” Oh god, no. Oh god, yes. Oh well. I trotted out to the middle where I hoped to blend in (ha ha!) and shuffled along in my Birkenstocks as well as I could while the camera-wielding parents clicked away. Afterward the VP said the students thought I was a good dancer, and they got it on video. All week teachers kept saying I was a good dancer. It was embarrassing, but I think it helped to make me at least not quite the outsider. This week one of the teachers asked if I wanted to come along next Friday on a teacher hike. They do them quite regularly, but this is the first time I’ve been invited. It’s a huge big deal, really.

The man featured in the photo below, left, is Hong Song-min, the school athletic director and resident hottie. Thirty-four, not married. He’s leading the school in a form of Japanese exercise to music. They have been practicing this at least once a week for who knows how long, but as you can see the kids are still just flopping all over the place. This is pretty much a visual of what English class is like every day. Me: “What. Do. You. Want. To. Do?” Student: “I play computer game!” Today I took special time to make them say “games,” plural, over and over, and they overstressed the S every time so it came out “gameZZZZuh.

Instructor Hong soars like an eagle while the kids, well...

These kids practice their drumming every day after school. Right outside my open office door...

These kids practice their drumming every day after school. Right outside my open office door...

And this is our school secretary, showing both her love of golf and Konglish. Speaks volumes.

Sunday I swapped apartments with a teacher who actually wanted to live in the Pig Pen. She got the bigger apartment, but I am very happy with my new place. It’s right on the bus line so I can step out my door and catch a bus that runs all the way to either of my schools, instead of walking a quarter mile to the rural bus stop while gagging on sewer and manure smells.

And it has high speed Internet and a HUGE HDTV monitor. I spent all day Sunday unpacking and gorging on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It was killing me to not be able to watch them during the presidential campaign, the richest source of satirical material ever. Speaking of which, it was also great to be able to watch the presidential debate this week at home, instead of hunkering down in some coffee shop with bad Korean pop music assaulting my ears. I could yell at that insane McCain and not look crazy myself.

Sammy isn’t too happy with the move though, since it is so much smaller, and has no outdoor access – I’m on the 13th floor. Yes, 13th. He keeps looking for the “other” room. He also is not happy with the Korean cat food I had to buy when his U.S. food ran out last week. I hope he adjusts. I did make him a custom cardboard cat scratcher, which he enjoys.

One more anecdote: Thursday a boy in class was suddenly seized with stomach pains – he looked really miserable. But the teacher said he didn’t want to go to the school nurse because he was afraid of the, “what do you call it, needle?” Huh? She explained that for non food-related stomach pains the remedy was to poke a finger and squeeze out the bad blood. I guess I looked skeptical, because she insisted, “It’s not mystery (I think she meant myth), is traditional Korean medicine.” I suggested that maybe the pain of the bloodletting distracted the patient from the stomach pain and they were thus “cured,” but this didn’t get across to her. Some Koreans also believe in “fan death” — that if you sleep in a closed room with a fan, it will suck out all the air and you will die. So there you go. Open a window.

Fast, loud and out of control

Now I understand why so many ESL teachers become alcoholics.

It was Wednesday and I was at Ara Primary, the larger of my two schools, teaching three classes of third graders and two classes of sixth graders. It’s a weird thing to be teaching all six grades, because you can see the children change from sweet little first graders to awkward, swarthy pre-teens in a matter of hours. It’s not pretty.

The classes are large at Big School, 30 to 40 students in each, with three classes per grade. With five classes a day, that’s upwards of 200 students passing through English class in a day; all operating at full speed and maximum volume. It seems to be the Korean way of teaching that louder is better – the class starts out loud and after a half hour your head is about to explode as their shrieked “answers” bounce off the floor and walls of your brain. The teachers are like cheerleaders, exhorting them to put more and more lung power into every response. But this day was the worst case scenario.

The first two classes of third graders howled their way through the “I like blah blah blah” exercise, with their teachers keeping a thin rein of control. I devised a simple game in which they divided into two teams and tossed a ball to each other, after naming something they liked, from the very short word list for the unit. “I like….apples.” Toss. “I like….chicken.” You get the idea. The team with the most words in one minute was declared the winner. Although I cringe at the winners and losers paradigm in children’s games, the kids are crazy about competition. It was incredibly simple, but they loved it. How it ranks on the language acquisition scale I don’t want to know. After that I finished off the class with songs from a Web site that the kids all know – timeless classics like “Head and Shoulders,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” They ate it up.

Things were going well, if volume was any indication, until the last group before lunch.
This class was led by Mr. E, a burnout who wanted nothing more than to dump the kids off on the stupid wayguk (foreign) teacher and go read for 40 minutes. And that’s what he proceeded to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if he charged them up on espresso and Red Bull first, they were so wired. I was faced with 40 members of the Wild Bunch who spoke maybe 10 words of English, and “QUIET” was not one of them. I’ve noticed the other Korean teachers have certain key words or gestures that the children recognize as meaning “knock it off and listen,” but here I was cast to the wolves, wearing, to quote Norm from Cheers, “Milkbone underwear.” How do you say “fucker” in Korean? I’m sorry, but that’s the only word for him.

I did my best to try to communicate to them the instructions to the game, which did not go as well as if they actually knew what they were doing, then gave up and let them sing songs for the last 15 minutes. Loudly. I was pissed that he had done that to me, but it’s also terribly unfair to the students. They learn little enough in this barest of bare bones curriculum, but these kids are learning nothing!

After school I told my co-teacher about his behavior and she said, “Oh he’s just old.” Um, he’s probably my age. She said he did the same thing to the teacher last semester. I suspect he is embarrassed that he doesn’t speak English and so is avoiding “losing face” in front of me and the students. Saving and losing face are huge cultural issues here. You might as well give someone a wedgie in public as call them out on a weakness. I will have to proceed with caution, but getting him to participate and help me is now my mission. Stay tuned.